“Aging” Spurs Sweat One Out

It took four games in New Orleans for the defending champs to show up. The boring, monotonous, robotic machine, fundamentally sound, substance without the flash, that has dominated the NBA playoffs for the better part of the decade. Everyone waited for them to emerge in this series and play a big game on the road to win, they waited until Game Seven. San Antonio won with its vintage formula, with a slightly different twist.

Defense, a dash of role player, a pinch of rebounding, mix it together, bake, top with 12 three pointers, cook for 48 minutes and enjoy on the flight to LA for Game One of the conference finals.

A nine-point first half lead meant little. In this series, the home teams won each game in the third quarter, New Orleans blitzing the Spurs in each of the three previous games in the Big Easy. Difference number one, San Antonio’s defense contained Chris Paul after the half. They slowed the game down. Each time Paul tried to run out in transition after a miss, the defense cut him off, whether it meant sending two defenders to slow him down, or simply fouling in the backcourt, San Antonio mitigated Paul’s transition game. Forced to play half-court defense, Bowen and Parker buckled down on Paul, and Popovich cooked up interesting schemes to defend the pick and roll. Defenders sagging in the lane, great hedges, all preventing Paul from invading the lane and creating easy baskets.

Forced to a more traditional half-court game, the Hornets went to West often. The All-Star forward missed a handful of makable mid-range shots, finishing the third 2-7 from the field with one turnover. Paul struggled from the outside, San Antonio owned the glass, preventing easy second chance opportunities. It all adds up to 14 third quarter points for New Orleans – job well done by the champs.

The Hornets made a big run in the fourth, cut a 17 point lead to 3 late in the game. Jannero Pargo, not Paul, got into the lane to create. Pargo came almost out of nowhere for 16 fourth quarter points, carrying the Hornets before Tony Parker stuck a dagger in them with a clutch jumper at the :50 mark to extend the lead to five and make it a foul shooting contest.

Offensively, the Spurs only netted 40 points in the second half. Most possessions were far from picturesque, as San Antonio finished the game shooting only 39.5%, dragged down by Tim Duncan’s 0-10 finish. While Duncan struggled shooting and sat with foul trouble, the Spurs role players stepped up with huge shots. Big game, no surprise Robert Horry stepped in with a pair of threes. Popovich dusted off Michael Finley to bury two big second-half threes, and Ime Udoka chipped in with 8 points, including two threes of his own. You see the trend, big three pointers, 12 in all on 42.9% shooting from downtown, half of them off the bench.

Showing that playoff experience and road savvy, the Spurs dominated at the line, nailing 19-21. If the offense struggles, you have to make free throws and San Antonio did in the second half. 16 of its 40 points in the half came from the line, even Duncan knocking down all six of his attempts. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili accounted for all 21 free throw attempts. None had sterling shooting nights, but they all contributed to the win. Winners do whatever it takes to win at all costs. San Antonio’s three stars did that. In this game it meant defense, getting to the line, and setting up open teammates.

Despite a poor second half, Duncan finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Underline the rebounds. San Antonio owned the glass, outdoing New Orleans 51-42. Outside of a possession late in the game that the Hornets snatched 4 offensive rebounds on, ending with a Pargo trey, it was San Antonio causing havoc on the offensive glass. Even when they didn’t capitalize with a basket, multiple second chance opportunities for the Spurs drained the clock, deflating the Hornets. When he wasn’t throwing daggers from three point land, Horry grabbed five offensive rebounds. Again, veterans contributing any and every way to win games.

Nondescript, ugly at times, in the end San Antonio got the job done once again. The first Game Seven road win in the Duncan era and first 0-2 comeback of the dynasty, the Spurs enter more unchartered waters, advancing to the conference finals for the first time as a defending champion.

I’ll stick with my mantra – they are the champs until someone proves otherwise.

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